Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sharing Umbrellas?

In the US, some of the earliest human rights ordinances that were adopted (as early as 1975) treated trans within the definition of sexual orientation. Most later laws and ordinances have made a distinction. But that doesn’t stop some people from seeing “trans” as a sexual orientation.

Some will say that the LGBT “umbrella” (or (or "GLBT umbrella" for those who don't believe in "ladies first") is responsible for the problem. It's the "LGBT Umbrella" that creates the confusion - three "sexual orientations" coupled with "gender identity and expression." Of course, the reason for the inclusion of T (which always comes at the end in the four-letter versions), as well as I (for Intersex) and one or more Qs (for Queer and Questioning), is because all of these identities, orientations and expressions are not shared by the majority of people, who are Cisgendered, Cissexual, Conforming and Heterosexual.

There’s also a controversy about the "transgender umbrella," which has nothing at all to do with sexual orientation – but creates a great deal of agitation among transsexual separatists who claim they don’t fall within the shadow of that umbrella.

Unless it’s properly understood as being reflective of sexual minorities and not only sexual orientations, the "LGBT Umbrella" can create confusion - three "sexual orientations" coupled with "gender identity and expression."

And yes, the transsexual separatists do have a point – the “transgender umbrella” can be misunderstood. (In fact, the separatists themselves often misunderstand it.)

When I do one of my "Trans 101" lectures, I talk about "the binary of sex and gender" and explain that for most people, sex and gender are conflated - male is synonymous with man, and female is synonymous with woman. I also explain that in English, we don't really have good language to easily express the differences, so I use some terms as "terms of art" that take on a slightly unconventional meaning.

Then I start with four basic characteristics to break down sex and gender:

Gender Identity (GI)
Sex Assignment (SA)
Gender Expression/Social Role (GE)
Sexual Orientation (SO)

(You see, sexual orientation gets to be a part of sex/gender, but not the overarching thing)

Then I go with the "Either/Or" of the binary:

GI . . . Masculine . . . Feminine
SA . . . Male . . . . . . . . Female
GE . . . Man . . . . . . . . Woman
SO . . . Attracted . . . . Attracted
. . . . . . .to women . . . . to men

A bit over 90% of the population will identify as one or the other of these "either/or" columns.

Then I get into Both/Neither in each characteristic, bringing in bigender (GI), agender (GI), intersex (SA - for both *and* neither), alternate presentation (GE), mixed presentation(GE), neutral presenation (GE), attracted-to-both (SO), and attracted to neither (SO).

Then we go through how there is such a diversity of identities in that less-than-10% of the population.

Gender Identity and Gender Expression are Cisgender/Transgender characteristics. Sex Assignment is a Cissexual/Transsexual/Intersex characteristic, and Sexual orientation is a Heterosexual/Homosexual/Bisexual/Asexual characteristic.

It's clear to me that those with a reversed polarity in any of the characteristics, as well as those who are "both" or "neither" should be covered in human rights laws.

In a recent e-mail conversation I had with a Canadian trans-activist, I agreed that it is an error for the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition to include aboriginal two-spirit people *solely* under sexual orientation. Of course, just like everyone else, two-spirit folks do have sexual orientations, they also have gender identities and gender expressions, *and* sex assignments!

As to including "all gender-non-conforming people" as homosexual? That seems a *lot* like a retrogression to the 1960's and 1970's - when the public perception of "trans" was as a kind of "gay." I guess that there is a bit of education that remains to be done.

BTW, on the "transgender as umbrella" thing - if you were to take my little matrix, it shows that both those who accept the "transgender umbrella" and those who reject it, do have a point. Transsexual relates to "sex assignment," Transgender relates to "gender identity" and "gender expression."

But transsexual people, like gay people, don't live in a vacuum. Transsexual people have gender identity and gender expression as well as a sex assignment (or in some cases, a sex re-assignment). For someone assigned as "Or" at birth, having a gender identity that is "Either" is one of the bases for seeking a change of SA. (And part-time crossdressers are often "Both" in gender identity and thus don't seek a change of SA.)

A part of the problem with the way some transsexual separatists view the situation, is that they will focus exclusively on the sex assignment aspect of things, and will even deny the existence of “gender identity.” (And for some, I actually have to refer to “gender identity” as “sex identity” because they will claim “gender identity” doesn’t exist, or refers to the Butch/Femme scale, while taking the definition customarily associated with “gender identity” and calling it “sex identity.” This is, of course, a matter of semantics.)

I am a firm advocate of replacing the “skinner box” psychology-psychiatry-as-equivalent-of-alchemy-astrology idea of “Gender Identity Disorder” with a recognition of Harry Benjamin Syndrome, a medical condition, not a psychiatric one.

I am also a firm believer that people who are born with HBS never really belong in their original sex assignment, and are not really male-to female (MTF) but are Women Born Transsexual (WBT), or not really female-to-male (FTM) but are Men Born Transsexual (MBT). This terminology change would reflect the recognition that people with HBS develop in such a way that their BSTc develops with a characteristic neuronal density related to target sex, not birth-assigned sex, while the mullerian or wollfian duct system developed in accordance with birth-assigned sex (except for those individuals with an intersex condition that is not solely centered in the brain development). The existence of the studies related to the BSTc and the long androgen receptor gene goes a long way to establishing HBS as a reality. I also believe that there is a need for study of the causes of whatever it is that causes non-transsexual transgender identities – is it related to HBS, or is it a completely different phenomenon? Could there be situations where the long androgen receptor gene is only partly expressed? What does the BSTc look like for part-time crossdressers who indicate that they are expressing an inner “feminine identity?” We don’t have answers to questions like these, so we’re in a situation where there is a lot more gray area than one might like, regardless of whether one is a separatist or not.

The fact that there are some ostensibly-heterosexual part-time MTF crossdressers who have an organization that excludes gays and post-op transsexuals doesn’t mean they are the root of some vast “transgender conspiracy” even if the founder of that organization had poorly-conceived understanding of the nature of transsexuality. The fact that there are some who advocate in favor of destroying the binary of sex and gender for everyone (rather than expanding it so that it isn’t just a binary and includes everyone), does not imply that anyone who is not a post-op is a member of this straw-man “transgender conspiracy.” The fact that there are mentally ill and socially pathological people who also have a sexual fetish for opposite-sex articles of clothing does not make them representative of all people “under the umbrella” (and in fact, if these people do not have an “opposite” or “bi” gender identity, those folks are not really under the “transgender” umbrella in the first place), does not support the existence of a vast “transgender conspiracy.”

I can understand and appreciate the fact that there are certain aspects of “reasonable accommodation” to which post-ops should have easier access and recognition, by virtue of having undergone the surgical procedures, which should be recognized as prima facie evidence of entitlement, while those who are pre-op or non-op should have more hoops to jump and perhaps a degree less accommodation. There is a huge difference between this and a common transsexual separatist position, which is that surgery should be the bright line for everything. It is also hugely different from the “straw man” transgender conspiracy created by some transsexual separatists that supposedly advocates that surgery shouldn’t be a consideration for anything, and that everything should be based on identity alone. (And I am sure there are perhaps a few out there who fit the “straw man” definition – after all, there is a diversity among advocates, and some may well fit into the boogie-trans category, monsters waiting under our beds and in our closets. But a few extremists do not represent the entire “umbrella.”)

Some transsexual separatists claim that the inclusive “transgender umbrella” folks are invading their space and claiming that “we are all the same.” The first thing, is that there is not a person with HBS who does not fit into the “set” (set theory was taught to me in the 5th grade with “new math” and I have always found it fascinating) of “people whose gender identity is opposite that expected for persons assigned the sex they were assigned at birth.” That is a “set” that excludes anyone without HBS. But they’re also members of a *larger* set – that of “people whose gender identity is different from that expected for persons assigned the sex they were assigned at birth.”

With the set of “opposite” one includes only persons whose gender identity is opposite that associated with birth assignment. With the set of “different” one also *includes* those whose identity is bigendered or agendered as well as opposite-gendered. That’s the “transgender umbrella” by definition. The only people who aren’t under the shadow of that umbrella are the cisgendered cissexual people who form a large majority (larger, if we include non-trans folks who have a cisgendered cissexual identity while having heir differences in sexual orientation!)

The last thought brings us to the next – what about sexual orientation? It seems that many but not all WBTs who have an issue with the “transgender umbrella” also have an issue with the “LGBT umbrella.” Many but not all of these are heterosexual based in reassigned sex. Perhaps it’s because they, once having completed surgery, desperately want to be included with the Cisgendered Cissexual Conforming and Heterosexual majority, and they see anyone who thinks of them as falling within the minority umbrella (LGBT or transgender) as holding them back from recognition.

The fact is that those transsexual separatists, by aligning with an oppressor majority, attempt to currying favor with that majority by claiming that by virtue of surgery they’ve joined the majority – and it’s those others, those sexual minorities, who shouldn’t have rights. (And there are some who might be transsexual separatists in some regards, who are actually enlightened enough to understand that there are some shared rights.)

Some transsexual separatists who identify as lesbian or bisexual may not have a terrible problem with gay and lesbian people, but see the “transsexual umbrella” as keeping them away from recognition as cissexual, or at least cissexual enough to be accepted as cissexual.

Some of the loathing I see expressed toward “transgender” is aimed at those who are bigender. This phenomenon is very mucg similar to the treatment of bisexual people in some gay and lesbian circles.

It is perhaps axiomatic that people whose polarities are “opposite” bus still within the binary, might have a tendency to look askance as those who have an aspect that falls outside the “Either/Or.” A “Both” identity, orientation or expression, can be viewed badly by those whose desire is to assimilate. (And no one seems to want to bother even thinking about the “Neithers.” It’s as if they didn’t exist – but they do!) With those who are post-op, the assimilation is more acute by virtue of having undergone surgery to fit in, than it is with gays and lesbians who take this view, whose resort in seeking human rights is that “the only difference is in the bedroom” – thus showing a willingness to leave behind those who don’t look straight (or in the case of transsexual separatists, “pass.”)

There are some transsexual separatists who also see “passing” as a factor – they believe that non-passable folks with HBS perhaps shouldn’t have surgery, because they make the passable ones look bad. (There are not too many transsexual separatists with this uncharitable view, but I have seen it expressed).

And yes, there are those "transsexual separatists" who object to the *term* "transsexual separatist." This may be because the term "separatist" has an odious bit of semantic baggage, though they'll indicate that they're not "separate" at all, just "not transgender." (Which, of course requires different definitions of the terms from those communly understood.)

So, is it possible that people can set aside their differences and work together? Is it possible for people to recognize that the “transgender umbrella” does not imply that “we are all the same” but only that “we all share a single characteristic even though we are all different?”

Perhaps not - there will probably always be some who feel a need for separatism. I hope they are and remain a tiny minority. I do hope it is possible to respect the differences while still accepting the umbrella – by looking to our commonalities rather than solely focusing on our differences, we can get farther together.